Sunday, January 26, 2014

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (KAVP), Pennsylvania

From snowplows to firetrucks: Airport employees trained as emergency responders

PITTSTON TWP. - Robert Zielinski was working on the lights in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport's parking garage when the crash siren went off on the morning of July 22, 2003.

The airport maintenance employee immediately stopped what he was doing and rushed to the airport firehouse, where he joined a group of fellow workers who responded to the fiery Suscon Road crash that claimed the life of the pilot.

Mr. Zielinski could see the black plume of smoke from the downed 1958 Hawker Hunter T MK 7 from miles away and encountered a raging blaze at the British-designed fighter jet when the group arrived at the crash site.

While other fire departments pumped water to the airport's small rapid-response firetruck, Mr. Zielinski and his colleagues doused the flames with water and foam within about an hour.

Like the rest of the airport's 27 maintenance and custodian workers, Mr. Zielinski is crossed-trained in emergency response techniques and qualified to handle a variety of situations, whether the job requires a snowplow or an automatic external defibrillator.

"You go from plumbing, electrical, inside to outside," Mr. Zielinski said. "Then the pager goes off (signaling an emergency), and you don't know what to expect."

Airport personnel responded to 10 aircraft emergencies, 15 fires, 11 hazmat calls - mostly fluid spills - and 56 various medical emergencies in 2013, according to a report that airport Director of Public Safety George Bieber recently provided to the Bi-County Airport Board.

The job includes little drama most of the time, said Jack Davis, the airport's lead firefighter.

"We get minor things - hot brakes, maybe an engine fire, smoke in the cockpit, things like that that are usually kind of mundane projects," said Mr. Davis, a former assistant Scranton fire chief.

Plane crashes are very rare. When they do occur, Mr. Davis said 90 percent of the time they happen away from airports. Fewer than half of airplane crashes end in fires.

"It's all geared toward 'What if?'  Mr. Davis said. "If that plane does crash, we'll be ready. Our equipment is ready. The guys are ready. Hopefully we'll never need to use it. I hope I can finish out my career here and never put my helmet on to go rescue somebody from a plane, but we'll be ready if it happens."

Airport personnel put in more than 1,200 hours of training in 2013 to prepare them for a variety of scenarios, according to Mr. Bieber's report.

In addition to the force of cross-trained maintenance and custodial staff, plus two firefighters, the airport has a range of equipment at its disposal.

That includes the rapid-response truck known as Echo-1, similar to an older version that fought the Hawker Hunter fire, and two larger firetrucks - Echo-2 and Echo-3.

"All together with our fleet, we can put 3,300 gallons of (aqueous film forming) foam and 900 pounds of (a dry chemical known as) Purple-K on a fire in 90 seconds," Mr. Davis said, not even including around 1,000 gallons of water-carrying capacity. "That will put out a lot of fire. The Purple-K will knock the fire down initially, and the foam will keep it out."

Tactics that airport responders use to combat plane fires differ from what Mr. Davis was used to with the Scranton Fire Department. If a fire is too much for its trucks to handle, he said responders will try to keep the blaze at bay until other fire departments arrive to help.

The airport's emergency response structure is similar to many other airports of similar size, although larger airports like Philadelphia International have a contingent of their cities' firefighters assigned there full time.

In addition to their regular jobs plus emergency response duties, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport employees inspect more than 300 fire extinguishers, plus test and maintain the fire alarms and sprinkler systems.

"It's like our own city here," Mr. Zielinski said. "We take care of it."

Aircraft emergencies in 2013 at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport:
  • smoke in cockpit 
  • low oil pressure 
  • rough engine 
  • odor in cockpit 
  • standby
  • gear indicator
  • gear-up landing
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